Thomas Swan

Research and Publications

My research concerns the psychology of religion. I conduct studies with human participants to test cognitive and motivational theories about the formation of religious beliefs, perceptions of gods, and intuitive afterlife reasoning. I also study religious art and burial objects (grave goods). I conduct my research at the University of Otago in New Zealand.


Grave goods may be the earliest evidence for religion, if intended for the decedents’ use in the afterlife. Here, we asked if afterlife beliefs motivate contemporary grave-good practices. We measured their deposition at funerals, finding that jewelry and photographs were common. Intuitive afterlife reasoning (i.e., attributions of mental states to the dead) motivated many people, including afterlife nonbelievers, suggesting that “afterlife use” is a common motivation for grave-good practices, and that humans possess intuitions about postdeath consciousness.

Across three studies, religiosity is found to correlate with a "repressive coping style" in which people deal with negative or threatening stimuli by unconsciously reinterpreting them more positively. When applied to gods and godlike entities, repressors downplay their threatening (e.g., punishing) traits and emphasize beneficial (e.g., loving) traits. This positive view of gods biases repressors toward believing in gods through motivated reasoning.

Beings that violate our expectations about what is possible (such as gods) are inherently perceived as threatening, meaning that anxious people, who pay special attention to threats, are cognitively drawn to gods and recall them better. The research supplements previous work that suggests anxiety can also motivate belief in gods.

The Mickey Mouse problem refers to the difficulty in predicting which supernatural agents will be worshipped (e.g., Allah, Vishnu) and which will not (e.g., Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus). This study compared the two and found that gods tend to be beneficent yet ambivalent, with ambiguous and mind-based abilities.

Beings that violate our expectations about the world were found to be more potentially threatening and potentially beneficent than beings that violate no expectations. Different types of violation were also examined in terms of their threat, benefit, intuitiveness, and recall.

Popular press and educational articles

A summary of the "Mickey Mouse problem" research, written for a general audience in "The Conversation."

An educational article about the evolution of art and its close relationship with the evolution of religion. The article draws on the theories of Ellen Dissanayake, Alfred Gell, and Ann Taves, and on Bryan Rennie's (2020) book: An ethology of religion and art: Belief as behavior

An educational article that introduces readers to key findings in the field of research known as "the cognitive science of religion."

An educational article that introduces readers to motivational theories of religious belief (i.e., that negative emotional states motivate people to seek comfort in gods and afterlives) and the experimental and correlational studies that support them.

Physics publications

I used to be a physicist! I switched fields in 2012. 

Here are my main contributions to nuclear physics.

This research was undertaken at the Australian National University (ANU) and reports on the discovery of four nuclear isomers. Isomers are atomic nuclei in which some number of protons or neutrons have absorbed energy and moved into higher "excited" orbitals, with the unique feature that they are "stuck" there, due to physical laws, for much longer than is typical (i.e., a half-life longer than a nanosecond, with some that last thousands of years).

Our team's discovery of a postulated four quasiparticle isomer (i.e., two protons and two neutrons in "excited" states within an Erbium nucleus) at ANU and the measurement of its half life and structure.

This research was undertaken in the U.S. at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was published in Nature. I was a co-author but had a large role in the experiment: building the deuterated target, writing much of the computer code (for sorting the data), and providing preliminary analyses.   

Further information and several other co-authored physics publications can be found on my ResearchGate profile.